Whether Gary Sanchez can be a successful hitter in the major leagues is no longer disputable. However, the Yankees "full-time" catcher is beginning to demonstrate that scouting reports on his improving catching abilities were potentially off-base.
Understand that this is not a call for Yankees backup catcher Austin Romine to take over the starting catcher role. Romine is strictly a backup who is already getting too much time behind the plate -- and truth be told he's not having a tremendous season behind the dish either. However, if Sanchez does not improve his work behind the plate or it continues to deteriorate from this point, there is a chance the Yankees will debate his future as a catcher for the club.
Sanchez is visibly hurting the Yankees behind the plate this season, making nine errors (two fielding, seven throwing), and he's allowed nine passed balls. While wild pitches are charged to the pitcher's record, Sanchez could have saved a handful of the 25 that have gotten by him by using better mechanics.
He has demonstrated an inability to ready himself for certain pitches (which, mind you, he is calling) and further refusing to drop down (and shift if necessary) to block the ball. Instead, Sanchez seems to be worried about being able to make a backhanded stab so he can immediately fire to a base. This decision is costing the team by allowing runners to advance into or further into scoring position, or as in the example below, allowing a run to score.
What is interesting is that Sanchez has shown very quick leg work and the ability to shift in front of wild pitches in the past.
Sanchez could also work to further improve his pitch-framing. He is just below average with a -0.2 RAA mark, according to. While the value is negative, Sanchez is tied for 10th among 37 catchers who have handled at least 3,000 pitches this season. Sanchez turned in a -0.7 RAA measure in 2016, which ranked 28th among catchers with at least 2,800 pitches received.
Not all has gone poorly for Sanchez behind the plate this season. He has once again used a strong throwing arm to peg runners on stolen base attempts. Sanchez owns a 38 percent caught stealing percentage this season (41 percent in 2016), while the league average is 27 percent (29 percent in 2016).
Defensive runs saved -- the overall measure of defense -- portrays Sanchez as an average overall catcher, checking in with a straight zero mark according to FanGraphs. With catchers, the metric is even more difficult to match with the eye test than other fielders. Along those lines, what we've seen from Sanchez this season is now falling below expectations he had increased in his final season in the minors.
Sanchez's previous issues involved blocking balls and receiving, which scouts commended him on when called up last August, based on what was perceived to be a strong effort to fix the problems he had as a younger catcher. The work Sanchez did behind the plate in 2015 and 2016 in the minors was a direct reflection of a change in work ethic -- something that dogged him as a younger player. Sanchez's arm (70 on the 80 scale according to a) and pop times have always been highly praised.
In 2016, Sanchez was better defensively on balls in play, making just three errors in 316 MLB innings. However, he allowed six passed balls, which prorates to the same number based on innings played this season (477 2/3). However, Sanchez's wild pitch numbers are up on an innings basis this season (15 wild pitches allowed in the majors last season). For reference, Sanchez allowed just 12 passed balls in just under minor league 1,300 innings from 2015 to 2016 across Double-A and Triple-A.
This leads me to believe the difference lies in Sanchez's actual effort and lack of instinctual prowess behind the plate since he's come up to the big leagues. His seeming reluctance to drop down and block balls consistently is a mental issue, because he has shown he can do it often enough. It is up to the Yankees' coaching staff to get into Sanchez's head and remind him of what he worked so hard to fix before being called up last season.
Now that Sanchez has cemented himself in the lineup, his true value comes from his hitting ability combined with being a full-time catcher. It is ultimately Sanchez's responsibility to regain focus on his defense, which will allow him to fully tap into his athletic abilities. Otherwise, there is a chance the Yankees could feel pressured to push him into a position (think first base or designated hitter) that should be handled by someone else just to keep his bat in the lineup.